Monday, August 27, 2007

Berlin Turnpike article

Turnpike at Crossroads?
With a spate of new developments in place, Berlin now has to deal with its image, and the oldest profession in the world on the Berlin Turnpike
By Adam Bulger
Hartford Advocate August 22, 2007

Driving south from Hartford on Route 15, which for the stretch between Hartford and Meriden is commonly called the Berlin Turnpike, you’ll notice several shifts in the landscape. The sections of the pike in Wethersfield and Newington are dense with big-box stores, strip malls, chain restaurants, gas stations and motels.
Farther north, in Berlin, the landscape becomes less crowded, and trees and unpopulated properties become more commonplace. Industrial parks, homes and stores are scattered among cheap motels. The crowded retail sprawl of the north end is absent.

However, the Berlin section of the Turnpike has gone through significant changes over the last several years. It’s becoming denser with retail stores and new developments. There are still several empty properties, but with a newly opened liquor store, a gas station/mini mart and a Dunkin’ Donuts currently under construction, they increasingly seem like the exception, not the rule.
“We’ve had quite a few changes on our strip of the Berlin Turnpike,” said Hellyn Riggins, director of Berlin’s Department of Development Services.” Newington built up quickly, but people have discovered Berlin.”
Unfortunately for the town, the new construction is set against a long-standing problem that has become more pronounced in the last year: prostitution on the pike.
“It’s a sporadic problem that pops up once in a while. It’s really only one or two individuals that seem to ply their trade on the turnpike,” Berlin Chief of Police Paul Fitzgerald said. “We arrest them, they go to court. They go away for about a month and then they come back.”

Berlin officials note that Berlin’s population has risen dramatically in the last five years. As a result, the town has been very aggressive about marketing their section of the pike for development. It’s not just a question of more things on the Berlin section of the turnpike. The nature of the businesses is changing.
“Obviously, we have areas for industrial. Most of it nowadays is becoming more retail,” Berlin Mayor Adam Salina said.
The Newington section of the pike is so developed that there’s little room for more construction. The logical thing seems, at first blush, for retail to push further south, into Berlin. And to an extent, that’s what’s happening.
“Retail is starting to filter down into Berlin,” Salina said.
Another important element is that the town of Berlin and surrounding areas are attracting more people.
“We have the people. We have the population. You need to have numbers to attract businesses. Berlin is attracting those numbers more and more,” Riggins said.
The nature of Berlin’s section of the strip and the way the residential neighborhoods that are around the road prevent the Berlin section of the turnpike from perfectly replicating the look and density of development on the Newington section.
Homes were built closer to the turnpike in Berlin than in Newington and Wethersfield. As a result, the lots are often too small to support a store like a Best Buy or a Target.
In addition, the road is surrounded by protected wetlands areas.
The easiest things to slot into the narrower spaces are strip malls. Considering though, that strip malls are among the most maligned commercial style, that poses some challenges for the town. While more retail would be good for the town in many ways, strip malls are viewed as ugly and undesirable. Riggins said that the town is being vigilant about quality control with the buildings. Her office is monitoring the aesthetic nature of the buildings that are going up. However, the town has realistic expectations of what the turnpike can support.
“We don’t expect the turnpike to look like a quaint New England town,” Riggins said.
She added: “we’re looking for quality architecture and style.”
As an example, she pointed to the new building housing the liquor store. It’s a strip mall, but one that’s dressed up with a roof furnished with cupolas (the things that look like little houses on building tops). She showed me a sketch of the currently under-construction Dunkin’ Donuts, and noted its relatively subtle signage and its elegantly designed outer lamps.

Some in the town are confident that the increased development on the turnpike will deter prostitution and other illegal activity.
“Good business and good industry kind of scares other kinds of businesses away,” Fitzgerald said.
But Laura Michaud, the founder of a group called No-VIP which opposes adult businesses on the strip, worried that more business would mean more places for prostitutes to hide.
“It might increase their odds. I don’t know. I think that rather than looking at these women as criminals, I’m sure they’re drug addicts,” Michaud said. “The real solution would be for them to get treatment.”
A Berlin police detective said that the women had been offered social services. However, the arrest reports don’t seem to support Michaud’s supposition about drugs; according to one report, an alleged prostitute told an officer where to buy crack upon the undercover officer’s request. Otherwise, the arrest reports have been drug free.
There seems to be few secondary effects of the prostitution on the pike. By all accounts, it’s a safe place to live and work.
“This is more of a poor impression than a dangerous situation,” Fitzgerald said. He stressed that while the women may be visible, they are few in number.
“I think they travel the length of the turnpike. I haven’t heard much about Newington, but I know they’re in Meriden. They might not like to travel down to Newington, or maybe they’re more discreet in the motels,” Fitzgerald said.
Prostition on the turnpike is not a new problem for Berlin, but it seems to have spiked recently.
“We’ve gone years without this sort of activity, but in the last six to eight months there’s been a number of reports. Everyone is aware of it,” Berlin police detective John McCormack said. It’s a visible problem — the women walk on the road in the daylight. In the last year, three women have been arrested on prostitution charges on the Turnpike: 41-year-old Kimberly Bowers, 46-year-old Catherine Smith and 42-year-old Vicki Wilson. Bowers and Wilson have of both been arrested twice. Berlin police detective John McCormack said that Bowers was unable to make bail, and was currently being held by the town.
Michaud, who lives in a house facing near the turnpike, said that when she and her neighbors organized to fight the adult entertainment store VIP from moving onto the turnpike, prostitution quickly became a point of concern.
At first, Michaud and her group were hesitant to alert the police when they saw a woman who they believed might be a prostitute. They weren’t comfortable with accusing people of prostitution. “You don’t want to think that just because someone looks down on their luck, you don’t want to automatically label them as a prostitute,” Michaud said.
But eventually she and her neighbors decided to start alerting police when they spotted the women. So in the last year, the Berlin police force has stepped up enforcement of prostitution. But proving that women are prostitutes is sometimes difficult.
“It’s a difficult arrest to make. We do occasionally arrest people for walking on the turnpike, not just women. If you’re a pedestrian on the turnpike and you’re on the road, you’re supposed to walk to the edge of the road facing traffic,” Fitzgerald said. “There are different rules for pedestrians. Obviously, these individuals will [flout] those rules because they’re trying to attract attention.”
The prostitutes seem to act boldly and recklessly. A Berlin police detective told me the women have flagged down unmarked police cars that the average citizen would recognize as an unmarked police car. Records of undercover operations show the women being forthcoming about being self-described “working girls.” In one notable report, the accused prostitute said “you got me” after being told that she was under arrest.
Berlin’s police have not yet aggressively prosecuted the men who hire prostitutes — commonly known as johns.
“Initially, we wanted to make the case against the women, hoping they would move on,” Fitzgerald said. “If they return and that doesn’t appear to have worked, then we might go after the johns.”
The johns haven’t been targeted in the past, Fitzgerald said, because arresting johns isn’t as effective a deterrent as arresting the women.
“The problem is with the johns is that it’s a different person every time. How do you get that message out? You can arrest one john today and they might be in the paper but that doesn’t scare every other john away,” Fitzgerald said.